Current and former clients file bar complaints for various reasons. As a lawyer, you should proactively plan to handle the most frequent attorney client problems to protect yourself. However, it is important to recognize that this sort of planning is an on-going process. In this post, you’re going to learn about the most frequent attorney client problems as well as some tips on how you can prevent them.
Related: Weeding the Client Garden and Avoiding Unnecessary Headaches [Podcast]
Taking a Client Outside of Your Areas of Practice
It’s not unusual for lawyers to practice in one or two areas of law and then decide they want to learn more about and practice in another area. Sometimes potential clients come to lawyers with a legal issue outside of the lawyer’s area of practice. Maybe the lawyer has an interest in that area. Maybe the lawyer thinks it will be an issue that’s simple to resolve. Maybe saying no will make the lawyer feel bad. Regardless, this is fertile ground for a bar complaint. If the matter doesn’t go well, this could cause the client to file an ethics complaint against you.
The best way to protect yourself and your practice against this frequent attorney client problem is to not take clients who have issues that fall outside the scope of your practice. Refer them to a trusted colleague. If you’re learning more about that area of law, do not take on clients in that area until you know that you’re well prepared to do so.
Failure to Communicate with Clients
One of the most frequent attorney client problems that result in a complaint is failure to communicate. This could be not returning phone calls, replying to messages left for you, or responding to an email. Communication is key to a successful practice as well as the key to improving your relationship with clients.
This is a potential problem that is fully within your control. If you’re going to be out of the office or unavailable to take phone calls, make it known. Change your voice mail to inform callers when you’ll return their calls. Use your email’s vacation setting to automatically reply to emails and let people know that you’re unavailable for the day and when they might expect a response from you. Set up a time each day to return phone calls and reply to emails. Make an office policy that all calls and emails from clients will receive a response within 24 business hours. Even if the response is that you’re researching the matter so that you can answer their question, the client will appreciate it.
Related: A Strategy for Minimizing the Risk of an Ethics Complaint
Not Allowing Clients to Exercise Their Decision Making Powers
Your job as a lawyer is to meet the “objectives of the representation.” The client has the power to make decisions. Clients have the power to decide what they want to accomplish during representation. They get to decide whether to make or accept a settlement offer. They get to decide if negotiation or litigation is the right step for them. Lawyers who take away their client’s ability to make certain decisions run the risk of becoming the subject of an ethics investigation.
To avoid this situation, remember that it is your responsibility to educate and guide the client, but that it is their decision to make. If they want to litigate and you think settling will create a better outcome, it is your ethical duty to support the client’s objective.
Notified of an Ethics Complaint Because of a Frequent Attorney Client Problem?
If you’ve been notified of an ethics complaint filed against you because of one of these frequent attorney client problems, read our 8 must take steps. An ethics complaint can have long-lasting effects for your career. Learn how to protect yourself.